By Mary Byrne

Photos by Ellie Diaz

From Baghdad to Chicago: One mother’s search for safety, education

Rahma, Hanan Mahdi’s oldest daughter, refused to go to her first day of kindergarten in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines.

But unlike other students, it wasn’t because the summer months had passed too quickly.

Rahma feared that if she went to school, she would be kidnapped.

This wasn’t the first time Rahma refused to enter a kindergarten classroom. She did the same thing after her second day of school in Baghdad less than two years before.

“I went [to kindergarten] for two days,” said Rahma, 11, recalling what her parents had told her of that day in her hometown. “I heard the teachers talking about a kid being kidnapped. I told my parents that I didn’t want to go anymore.”

So, on Rahma’s third day of kindergarten at Melvin Elementary, Hanan went with her.

“The teacher said to me, ‘it’s OK to come with Rahma for 10 days,’” Hanan recalled. “And just for one day I was with her. On the second day she said, ‘It’s OK, mom, you can stay home, I’ll stay alone at the school.’”

In the Saydiyah neighborhood of Baghdad where Hanan lived with her family, militia patrolled the streets, shootings were common and gangs ran rampant. Houses were looted. Organized criminal gangs and Jihadist groups kidnapped children from inside their homes and held them for ransom. All too often, whether or not the ransom was paid, the abducted child wouldn’t return home safely.

That wasn’t the life Hanan wanted for her daughter, nor her son, Fehad, 9. More than anything, she said, she wanted her children to be safe. She also wanted them to get an education.

But in the war-torn city of Baghdad, their priority was safety. She said that she and her husband, Muhammad Hussein, 40, decided Rahma would stay home from school until they found a better option for her, one that would make Rahma feel safe again.

Fortunately, that option took the shape of an offer from The New York Times – where Muhammad worked as a newsroom manager in Baghdad – to resettle his family somewhere in the United States. As an Iraqi working for an American organization, he and his family were considered high risk for danger, Hanan explained. After an 18-month refugee vetting process, which included health tests, multiple interviews and passport applications, Hanan and her family arrived as refugees to the U.S on a cold, snowy day in January 2010.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United Nations estimates 2.2 million Iraqis have taken refuge beyond the country’s borders. Hanan and her family were four of more than 18,000 Iraqis who were admitted as refugees to the U.S. that year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Of the more than 83,000 Iraqi refugees who have arrived to the U.S. since 2008, about 5,307 refugees settled in Illinois, making it the fifth most common settlement state for Iraqi refugees, according to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Baghdad Hanan grew up in – the Baghdad where she could have foot races and play outside with her two younger brothers and her older sister, all of whom remain in the Middle East – was nothing like the Baghdad she left behind.

“You couldn’t walk in the street,” said Hanan, her words just grazing the cultural significance they carried. In Iraqi culture, as it is in other Arab cultures, the street is a social gathering space – a place to shop and hang out – it’s not simply a means of getting from point A to point B. The war in Iraq had stripped that freedom from them.  

“All our friends [and] all our neighbors, we stayed inside,” she said.

With the help of Muhammad’s family, Hanan and her two children settled in relatively easy, according to Hanan. Muhammad’s aunt and uncle – the Nasers, who currently live in Morton Grove, a Chicago suburb – found the family a place to stay, helped furnish their home and found work for Muhammad to begin as soon as possible.

For their first three months in the U.S., the family of four squeezed into a small room in the Nasers’ home, where six of the eight people in the house spoke Arabic.

“There were a lot of fights,” said Amina Naser, 21, one of Muhammad’s cousins. “Especially between me and Rahma … Now, now it’s weird. It’s like none of that ever existed.’     

Now a family of five, Hanan and her family live in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, in a apartment furnished with photos and memorabilia from their past. A small kitchen connects to an ever-so-slightly larger family room. There are two bedrooms at the back of the house with a compact bathroom between them.

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While Naser described her memories of their transition, Fehad buried himself in a hand-held video game, Rahma intently listened and the youngest child, Rayhana, 2, twirled a spoon in small bowl of honey placed on a small table full of sweets and pastries.

“[Their current apartment] had been foreclosed, and the cabinets were taken by the previous owner,” Naser said. “Most of the home was furnished by the Salvation Army. The bed sets were [the Naser’s] old bed sets.”

Muhammad came here with savings, and family back home sent them money, she said, but they’ve worked really hard since they’ve been here. Some of the original furnishings have since been replaced.

As positively as they speak of their experience, Naser remembers the difficulty the family first had. It wasn’t easy for them, she said. Mohammad was frustrated he couldn’t get a job with his degree in English journalism. In Iraq, Mohammed was a reporter before he became the newsroom manager and an Iraqi interpreter at The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau. For several years, he also wrote for the column, “At War: Notes From the Front Lines.”

He published his last piece for The New York Times in March 2013, a piece that detailed his experience leaving Iraq for the final time.

Mohammad currently works two jobs to bring home as close to a full-time paycheck as he can. He is a brand manager at an Audi dealership in Des Plaines, where he handles the marketing and public perception of Audi’s brand. He is also a translator for a company called Alliance Business Solutions (ABS).

But just three weeks after arriving to Chicago, he started a managerial job at Pizza Hut. For Muhammad, the hardest transition from Iraq to the U.S. was the work.

“Imagine being a newsroom manager,” Muhammad said. “You’re running the newsroom for the most prestigious newspaper [and] then you come here, you end up working … what I call a survival job.”

Meanwhile, for the children, the hardest adjustment was the realization that their reality in Baghdad wasn’t their reality in Chicago. They lived in constant fear that they would be kidnapped, cousin Naser said.

I remember one time Fehad, who really liked automobiles as a toddler, was skipping to the park with me and saw a John Deere mowing the lawn in the park,” she said. “He was all excited about the lawn mower and then he stops and goes ‘does that man steal kids?’ And I didn’t understand that until just recently.”

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For Rahma in particular, the transition to America wasn’t smooth. She still carries with her some of the fears she had from her home in Baghdad. Muhammad said that to this day, his daughter has a habit of locking the doors whenever he steps outside for a smoke.

“She knows I’m standing in front of the building,” he said. “She makes sure the doors are locked, every time … She still worries. I can feel it. She still doesn’t feel secure, but I don’t know why.”

Naser said she thinks that her cousins are hesitant to express regret or frustration of their move to Chicago because of how it compares to the life of fear and uncertainty they would have had in Iraq.

“I think they make it seem like they had an easier time here in the beginning than what was really [the case] because they had such a difficult life [in Baghdad] that they can’t complain about adjusting here,” Naser said. “They don’t want to take their things for granted.”

However, education has played an important role in helping Hanan and the kids to adjust, Naser said. Both Rahma and her brother Fehad took English as a Second Language (ESL) classes the summer before they began kindergarten and preschool, respectively. Rahma, who missed out on her first year of education in Iraq, only started one year behind her peers.  

Now, at age 40, it’s Hanan’s chance to get an education. Had she still been in Iraq, she said, her last year of school would have been when she was 18. After two years of English language classes, Hanan enrolled in Oakton Community College, studying to be an elementary education teacher.

“I love kids. I like to help them with homework [or to] play with them,” she said. “And maybe I will get a job with this kind of study.”

The language barrier, for someone like Hanan, was especially difficult. She’d always been a talker.  In her youth, she was a good student but often considered a “trouble maker,” too – always telling jokes and keeping her audience in laughter.

“When I first got here, I couldn’t speak well,” she said. “I don’t like to sit at home. I have many, many neighbors here who I talk to and connect with.”

But she refused to let the language barrier stop her from trying to connect with people.

“If you don’t know [what I’m saying], I do this,” Hanan said, smiling and miming with her hands. “My language is not perfect now, but I can connect with [neighbors and friends]”

As Hanan learns to speak English, her children continue to learn and practice Arabic, she said. In the home, the family speaks Arabic. The youngest in the family and only child to be born in the U.S., Rayhana, speaks and understands very little English.

Naser said that on weekly family gatherings, the younger generation prefers to converse almost entirely in English. The adults, she said, stick to Arabic.

Much to the children’s dismay, Hanan and Muhammad insist that the children regularly attend Sunday school at the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove, where they study Islam and Arabic, she said. It’s one of the many ways in which Hanan hopes to keep part of their home culture alive and well in the U.S.

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Today, both Hanan and her husband proudly say they are American citizens. In February 2014, they were given small American pins that commemorated their new citizenship. It wasn’t an easy process, she said.

“[The test] was not easy because I studied for 100 questions … I studied English … [and] they asked me just six,” Hanan said.

Muhammad, who received his citizenship shortly thereafter, said that although he’s proud of his Iraqi heritage, he’s proud to be an American, too.

“The country gave me a safe place, a shelter for my family, for my kids,” he said. “The environment is better than what they had at home in Iraq.”

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